Next installment in a long-running conversation-series with one of my best friends, Mitchell Fain.
Part 1: Justin Timberlake, Lena Horne, Doris Day, Jill Clayburgh, Cary Grant, Don Rickles.
Part 2: Woody Allen, Joan Crawford, Lily Tomlin, Claude Rains, Burt Reynolds.
Part 3: Joan Rivers.
The game: I pick a bunch of famous people, throw their names at Mitchell one by one, first asking him to describe each person using only “one word”, and then moving onward to a discussion. Mitchell and I have been friends since we met in college, and these conversations have been part of our relationship since the beginning. We probably discussed Matthew Modine for five straight hours after seeing Birdy in college. So a while back I figured, I need to start taping these conversations. While I was in Chicago, we didn’t go outside for an entire freezing day, and talked for hours about all of the names on my list. There are now five more discussions to be added to this series, and the only thing left is to transcribe them all. First up? A man Mitchell and I have already discussed ad nauseum. I was completely riveted by what he did in Neighbors (post about it here), but I’ve liked him in other things as well. It’s kind of fun to add Zac Efron to the people we’ve already discussed, luminaries such as Lena Horne and Joan Crawford. Listen: EVERYONE is interesting. So let’s get to it. Mitchell Fain Presents, Part 4: Zac Efron.
Sheila O’Malley: Zac Efron. One word.
Mitchell Fain: Oh God. I’m already trying not to be prurient. I’m just going to say Prurience and call it a day. So the first thing is that he becomes famous when he’s a kid. He’s so pretty he looks like Japanese anime.
And he’s the kind of boy who is so beautiful that he’s almost feminine. He doesn’t behave in an effeminate manner, but –
SOM: He’s beautiful, as opposed to handsome.
MF: Of course now he’s becoming handsome as he gets older and thicker … and … I can’t talk about it … hairy-chested … This is going to be painful. I have an appreciation for talented cute teeny-bopper boys. Justin Bieber, Justin Timberlake, Lance Kerwin, Willie Aames, Scott Baio – adorable beautiful boys.
Zac is the fantasy of little girls and little gay boys everywhere, especially in High School Musical, because he was so un-threatening. What’s interesting about Zac Efron, and I would put Daniel Radcliffe in a similar category: These boys got an amazing opportunity, young, and for a long time they had very little control over their careers. They were children.
But let’s go back. Let’s not dismiss High School Musical. The High School Musical phenomenon is not to be under-estimated as far as the buying power of Tweens. High School Musical almost invented the word Tween. We started to talk about Tweens almost because of High School Musical.
SOM: Those Tweens will be fans of Zac Efron until he’s 80. If Ralph Macchio opened in a movie right now, I would camp out outside the theatre. That’s a crush dating from when I was 12 that will last my life. Please continue.
MF: In a way, the fall and limitations of someone like Ryan O’Neal is such a shame to me because I’d still go see him in anything. If he were still a viable movie star the way that Richard Gere is still a viable movie star … He changed my life at 6 or 7 years old, when I first saw that beautiful blonde man.
Like Radcliffe, Efron has now taken control of his career. Maybe Daniel Radcliffe has made smarter choices, more intellectual choices, but both of them have taken control in a way that is appropriate for them, and it’s rare, and cool.
There was that thing at some red carpet event where Zac Efron reached into his pocket and condoms fell out. Really, Zac? Come on. I think that was a completely deliberate thing. I think he and his friends or he and his managers were like, “How do we get people to think of me as a person who fucks people? I need people to stop thinking about my pretty face. I’m a grown-up now and I want you to think about the fact that I put rubber on my hard cock and then put it in people.” The red carpet moment made you think: Zac Efron carries condoms?
We were just talking about Jean Harlow, and her luscious body wrapped in satin cut on the bias. And now it’s 2016, and we get to objectify Zac Efron’s body.
SOM: And he participates in that as though he’s posing for Michelangelo.
MF: AbsoLUTEly. And he drives even other straight men crazy with desire. I mean, the way Seth Rogen responds to Zac Efron? Rogen went on an entire press tour talking about the perfection of Zac Efron. People can’t handle it. We now live in a time where straight men can talk about their man-crushes.
Now let’s go deeper. Efron was a musical theatre kid and he could sing and dance. And in High School Musical, he’s really dancing, which is very sexy. But they dubbed his voice for the singing. In the second movie, he insisted on singing himself.
And then he made the super wise choice to be in Hairspray, and he NAILED it.
He was so sincere in Hairspray, and I think that’s what it comes down to: You don’t expect that boy to be that sincere.
SOM: It’s a killer combo.
MF: In Neighbors, which we both love … the movie is constantly making us think of the way his abs lead down to his No-No place. And, again, even in Neighbors, he’s so sincere.
SOM: That’s why that movie is what it is.
MF: What comes to mind for me when I think about Zac Efron, and why I think you and I love him so much, is Errol Flynn. Errol Flynn was so handsome, so unbelievably gorgeous. He had so much charisma. And so it was hard to take Errol Flynn seriously.
It took Bette Davis 30 years after the fact to go, “I re-watched Elizabeth and Essex and he was so much better than I gave him credit for, and I was mean to him and I wasn’t fair.” And looking back, how do you take him seriously? It pissed Bette Davis off that anyone would take him seriously enough to put him in a film with her.
And I think Zac Efron pisses people off in a similar way, in a kind of “Fuck him. Pretty boy” kind of way. While he’s busy quietly garnering the respect of his peers. Seth Rogen and that cool group of guys are taking him in.
SOM: Him and Channing Tatum.
MF: Efron and Channing are similar in that they are channeling or representing … I know I use this word too much, but there’s a zeitgeist, a shift in male sexuality that’s post-metro-sexuality. It’s starting to be a little bit unfettered from the homophobic vibe of the past. So if Seth Rogen and James Franco and all these cool dudes think that Zac Efron and Channing Tatum are cool and if Seth Rogen admits that he thinks Zac and Channing are insanely hot, then it’s cool for you to like your pretty friend in the same way. Dudes are admitting that they can appreciate other pretty dudes.
I see it in my really young friends. A friend of mine, 22, has a posse of friends, and he’s so proud of the fact that they’re all beautiful, that none of them are homophobic, and he’s vain about it in a way that somehow is very sexy. It’s not vain like “Fuck you”, it’s vain like “Come appreciate us.”
SOM: That’s Magic Mike in a nutshell.
SOM: Early on, when he was trying to establish himself post-High School Musical, Zac Efron made a couple of dismissive comments about the High School Musical audience, trying to distance himself from them. I remember thinking, “Oh God, no, don’t do that … Those girls will love you forever, don’t alienate them.” Of course, he was very young at the time.
MF: He hasn’t done a musical since Hairspray. He was very smart to do Hairspray but he has deliberately not done one since. As it turns out, he really can sing and dance. Who knows if he can sing live onstage, but he can sing and dance. But he has that thing that you and I talk about all the time that makes someone not just an actor – which we love, too – but a movie star. And it was in Neighbors where he flipped the switch on that, because there’s a darkness to that character in Neighbors too. I wonder if the success of Daniel Radcliffe and Zac Efron as young adults has to do with the fact that they learned how to act as children. There’s an openness to receiving, in both of them, because that’s how it is when you’re a kid. When you’re a kid, you receive everything. There are very few people who have Zac Efron’s charisma. You can’t learn it.
SOM: It probably pisses a lot of serious actors off.
MF: It probably pisses him off too. I worry about him a little bit in a way that I don’t worry about Radcliffe, because Efron is so smoking hot (although Radcliffe, I think, is incredibly sexy too). But Radcliffe never has to work another day in his life. Who knows if Zac Efron is in that same financial position. Daniel Radcliffe never ever ever has to work another day in his life, period, end of story. He’ll always be Harry Potter. Zac Efron does have to work a little bit harder.
There are a couple of things that are interesting about Zac Efron as a personality, things that I worry will get in the way of his work. The condoms on the red carpet. The “Oh, I just happened to be naked on that balcony” behavior. I’m not judging it. Don’t get me wrong. It’s fucking fantastic. He is spank-bank fodder for many many people and he knows it. I think it’s great that he uses it in his work.
SOM: It would be silly not to.
MF: Not to give him this much credit yet, but in the way that we’ve talked about in terms of Catherine Deneuve and how she has always used her looks in whatever roles she takes. It would be silly for her to be in a movie that did not acknowledge her beauty.
That’s why I didn’t like that Clint Eastwood movie The Changeling. To have Angelina Jolie walk into a room and not have everyone in that room acknowledge that she looks like that … it’s a lie and I’m out of the movie. Sorry. It would be like pretending Lauren Bacall didn’t look like what she looked like. Katharine Hepburn talked about being on location with Lauren Bacall for African Queen and coming out of her tent and seeing Bacall pouring a cup of coffee for Humphrey Bogart, looking like a million bucks in the middle of the jungle, and Hepburn thinking, “Fuck You … except I love you and you’re fabulous.”
What I hope is that the reaction to Zac Efron is also “Fuck you, but I love you cause you’re fabulous” as opposed to dismissing him. It seems like it is that, because he seems to have the respect of his peers, and he seems very well-liked, but I worry that there are a lot of people telling him ways in which to manipulate his image. The condoms. Oh hi, I just happen to be naked on the balcony. I don’t mind him teasing his body to people or what they call “gay-baiting”, which they accuse Nick Jonas of doing too. The interesting thing is that Nick Jonas is very honest about it. He’s like, “I am absolutely doing that. I wouldn’t call it ‘baiting.’ I have a lot of gay fans and they really like me and they really like my body and I’m really proud of my body and here it is.”
In a way, Nick Jonas is doing what I’d like to see Zac Efron do. Nick Jonas is actually doing edgier material. Playing a closeted fratboy on Scream Queens, or playing that boxer who may or may not be queer in Kingdom.
I worry about Zac Efron because I think he is potentially a major MAJOR movie star.
According to most people’s reports, Dirty Grandpa is a nadir of pretty much everyone’s careers. Even Aubrey Plaza, who is so funny, does not come across well. Like, enough. Who is leading his career? Zac Efron has the potential to be a 21st-century male sex symbol pinup. In the way we’ve talked about with Burt Reynolds, Richard Gere, Errol Flynn. Like with them, the structure of Zac Efron’s body …
MF: It’s designed to make us think about sex. He takes care of his body, he works on his body. He has had a little bit of issues with drugs, he did a stint in rehab. He has the charisma, but sometimes that charisma can hurt you, or trap you.
SOM: Let’s think about that. Someone like Burt Reynolds or Errol Flynn, in their heyday … What happened with them is happening with Channing right now. It’s not happening with Zac yet, but Channing is 10 years older, so that may be the difference. But as with Burt, or Errol, or Richard Gere, whatever, the industry recognized the value of what a male sex-symbol movie star like that brings to a project, and gathered its forces to put them in stuff that gave the public what it wanted. So there’s Burt Reynolds doing all these films for different audiences, that all became one audience, like Smokey and the Bandit and Deliverance and Starting Over … People could not get enough of him.
MF: Efron has not had a Smokey and the Bandit yet, he has not had a Robin Hood yet, he has not had a Magic Mike yet …
SOM: The industry misses the point with this all the time, especially with men. It is slow to value megawatt male stardom like that. Those men are CAST in stuff, of course, because they’re gorgeous, but nobody seems to know where to put them at first. Stories need to be designed FOR them. And so where do you PUT Zac Efron? Someone like Seth Rogen, an industry insider at this point, but there’s an independent outsider-ness to him as well – created the character in Neighbors probably with Zac Efron in mind … and went about getting out of the way to let Efron do his surprisingly complex and touching thing, as well as the megawatt superstar thing too. But let’s think about where he’s at right now in his career and what’s happening with some of those other former teeny-boppers: what if Efron was put into a Coen Brothers movie – as just happened with Justin Timberlake, as just happened with Channing Tatum, or what if Efron was put into a Woody Allen movie – which happened to Leonardo DiCaprio…
MF: Right, Zac Efron hasn’t had that yet at all. It’ll be interesting to see if those offers start coming in.
SOM: I just saw The Vow with Channing Tatum and Rachel McAdams, and it’s pretty bad. Channing Tatum plays a bohemian independent record producer who has a bunch of bohemian friends, and it’s like … For real? Bohemians don’t have bodies like that, who are you kidding. But strippers DO have bodies like that, right? But where do you PUT Channing Tatum, except in rom-coms? Or maybe war movies. And then suddenly, same year as The Vow, along comes Steven Soderbergh’s Magic Mike … and Channing’s stripper past is now public knowledge, and it all falls into place for him. He suddenly got to be himSELF. And Boom: Superstardom. Magic Mike changed the game.
MF: The game-changer for Channing Tatum was Magic Mike because it came FROM Channing Tatum. It’s HIS story. What will be the same thing for Zac Efron? You and I hope – because we like him so much and we respond to his charisma and also just the pure sex of him – not a bad thing! – that he will find projects that will acknowledge his beauty, and use him correctly. Back in the day, we had, say, Sophia Loren.
She was so unbelievably gorgeous, she had to become a star, and then everyone realized what a wonderful actress she was too, which she was all along, of course.
SOM: Brigitte Bardot.
MF: There are any number of freakishly gorgeous people who then showed us what wonderful actors they were. But it started with the looks. Hollywood is based on this kind of objectification. I’m not mad about it. I’m happy to go see those people.
And as long as Zac Efron takes off his clothes and keeps teasing us with how much of his clothes he’s going to take off, I’ll still go see his movies. But it will be interesting to see if he gets the chance to develop more. Neighbors was a pretty typical movie, genre-wise, and then he did something extra with it. That “extra” was all him.
What if he had a movie that was already “extra” … could he show up to that, too?
SOM: I really think he could.
MF: I worry about him. [Long pause.] And I want to see his dick.
SOM: I think we should probably end there.